Amid big changes in Philly media, startup Billy Penn sticks to its vision

Philadelphia skyline (AP photo)

In the 16 months since the news startup Billy Penn launched, the media landscape in Philadelphia, the site’s home city, has changed dramatically. The major dailies made a radical shift to a nonprofit model, the alt-weekly City Paper was shuttered, the public radio station lost experienced leadership, and other digital startups went live, making their own bid for local readers.

Through all the turmoil, Billy Penn has stayed true to its vision: mobile-first, millennial-friendly, a mix of aggregated and original content, and a big bet on live events. Though it hasn’t paid off with profitability yet, CEO Jim Brady says the business plan is on target—and while the site is still developing its niche, Brady and Chris Krewson, Billy Penn’s editor, can make a good case that the editorial model is working as they intended, too.

Now well into its second year, Billy Penn can point to growth on a number of fronts. The team behind the site has expanded to seven full-time staff members, including a vice president for the business side, a developer, and a third full-time “reporter-curator.” (Brady, who is a personal investor in the site, doesn’t draw a salary.) The staff has moved out of incubator offices at Temple University and set up shop in a Center City co-working space across from City Hall. This month, Billy Penn becomes the first digital news startup to partner with PolitiFact, bringing the “Truth-O-Meter” to Pennsylvania politics. It is also a pioneer in Facebook Instant Articles, the only local independent outlet to join the program to publish directly on the social platform. Perhaps most importantly, the site has showed that it is capable of moving the needle on big stories.

One of Billy Penn’s staff members happened to be on Amtrak 188 when the train derailed after leaving Philly’s 30th Street Station last May, putting her in a position for immediate on-the-spot coverage. In the fog of a tragedy whose scope was not yet clear, Billy Penn focused its entire news stream on real-time updates of the crash, both original and curated. In the days following the accident, the site skipped press conferences that would generate stories that it could link to, and instead did the articles that were not yet written, like a piece on how train accidents are investigated. The staff member who had been on the train, former product director Beth Davidz, wrote two stories about her experience. Months later, the site’s page about the crash continues to be updated with original stories and links to other notable coverage.

Altogether, the crash coverage was a demonstration of how Billy Penn is supposed to work—and while that seems straightforward enough, executing on a vision is harder than it sounds.

Compared with other local start-ups that launched around the same time, Billy Penn has “the surest sense of any of what they want to be when they grow up, and that focus is clear in their work,” said Joel Mathis, an associate editor at Philadelphia Magazine.

“They don’t try to be everywhere at once,” Mathis added. “They’re probably among the best I’ve seen at adopting the ‘do what you do best, then link to the rest’ ethos in reality, as opposed to a goal that’s never quite reached.

Brady, a digital-media veteran who now doubles as ESPN’s public editor, and Krewson, the former executive online editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, bring pedigrees that give Billy Penn a higher profile, and a wider following among industry insiders, than a typical local startup. But they are clear that they are focused on a well-defined local audience: More than half of Billy Penn’s readers are under age 35, Krewson said, and more than 75 percent are under 44. Younger audiences, he said, “are just starting to care about this stuff”—meaning, local news. A site that puts out a few good stories a day is the right fit for them, he said.

“If I had a choice between a massive audience with very little loyalty and very little connection, and a small, brilliant, intensely focused audience, I’d pick the loyal one,” Brady said.

That sense of discipline comes with tradeoffs, among them that Billy Penn’s style isn’t for everyoneincluding, to be honest, me. Not just because I’m not a Philadelphian, but because, while I enjoy the site’s content more than I did a year ago, the tone and presentation often don’t match my taste. Said Mathis: “The stuff they do is generally smart, and if it’s suffused with what a colleague of mine called ‘millennial babytalk,’ well, it’s because they know who their audience is, who they want it to be, and they’re pretty relentlessly focused on serving those folks.”

Focusing on a defined audience takes some courage, and also comes with some clear benefits. While Billy Penn has seen readership growth—when I talked to Krewson in late January, the site had 300,000 unique pageviews for the month, a new record—it doesn’t depend on ever-higher online traffic. That means its website isn’t designed primarily to generate clicks and ad impressions, which creates a better experience for readers.

“I say we’re reader-first, and people laugh at that because it sounds so much like Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, media-guru crap,” said Brady. “But no, it’s big business. We always go back to whether we want to monetize the reader on this visit, or monetize them over a lifetime. If you literally don’t care about the reader coming back to the site, you can just load every page with auto-play videos.”

One way Billy Penn has monetized readers is through live events, which can have up to a 75 percent profit margin, according to Krewson. That includes everything from happy hours to celebrations of the site’s “Who’s Next” list to a pope-themed pub night. Gala events, like Billy Penn’s birthday party, can be sponsored by multiple institutions, and tickets are sold at prices from $20 to $40. Print programs present an opportunity to sell ads.

“In my opinion, events always should have been more interesting to advertisers, especially in a digital world,” Brady said.

In 2015, events accounted for about 80 percent of Billy Penn’s revenue, with advertising making up most of the balance. They are hiring now for a sales and events manager to expand their events capacity. In 2016, grants will make up a bigger part of the picture. The PolitiFact partnership draws support from The Democracy Fund, which is also a major supporter of CJR. The Knight Foundation, which is a sponsor of the “Who’s Next” event series, has given Billy Penn a $106,000 grant to build an interactive guide to mobile journalism.

For all the growth and focus, Billy Penn’s first year also saw its share of adjustments and lessons learned. An experiment in playlists never caught on. The site flirted with sports coverage, but that’s on hold, Krewson said, “until it’s something you can expect from us to do regularly, with a unique take.” Brady noted the site hasn’t yet been able to build out some of the civic engagement tools that he talked about early on; after years of working in larger companies, he had to adjust to a startup scale where only one or two important projects can be take on at a time.

Billy Penn also traded its freelance budget for a part-time weekend editor. “We just felt like we were building traffic all over again on Monday, only to lose it on Friday,” Krewson said. “Publishing seven days a week made a big difference, even if its just one or two stories” on the weekend.

Another notable adjustment: a different set of expectations about the role the site can play in the city’s media culture. When I spoke to Krewson not long after the site’s launch, he said Billy Penn wouldn’t try to go “head to head on every story” against larger publications, arguing that the outlet could deliver value instead by connecting its audience to good work by other publications.

You can still see that mindset at work today at the site and on its social media streams. But at the same time, “I’ve backed off on that a little bit,” Krewson says now. “I didn’t know yet what we had in terms of staff. At this point, anytime a story exists, we’ll go for it.”

As an example, he points to the local angle behind the assault allegations against Bill Cosby, a Philly native. “I waited three weeks for the Inquirer to do the ‘what Bill Cosby’s fall will mean for Philadelphia’ story,” Krewson says. He didn’t see the article he was expecting. “So we did it a week later.”

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.